Some comparisons between Eidos Montreal's Thief and last year's Dishonored, I suspect, are inevitable. Both first-person adventures feature a grim stalker stealing through the night to perform various nefarious deeds, relying heavily on the cover of shadows to avoid an untimely demise by guards and soldiers far more powerful than themselves. At heart, the two games have much in common.
And why shouldn't they? Both titles share a certain amount of DNA; Dishonored producer Harvey Smith worked on the first two Deus Ex titles at Ion Storm, a company that emerged from the dissolution of Looking Glass Studios, where Thief's original predecessor (Thief: The Dark Project) was created. It's a small industry after all, and the fact that so many games seem to cover so much of the same ground probably has as much to do with their common roots as it does the creative timidity of publishers.
Whatever similarities the two games share, their fine differences will ultimately define the experiences they offer. And Thief seems a remarkably faithful addition to its franchise, despite now resting in the hands of an almost completely unrelated studio to the original trilogy. Admittedly, I make this claim based entirely on secondhand knowledge, not having played the older Thief titles myself -- but seeing as my novice status puts me squarely in the demographic that Eidos and Square Enix hope to court with this new adventure, the fact that I can easily spot the differences between Thief and its contemporary stealth action competition in the course of a limited one-hour demo speaks well for the game.
I honestly have no idea how loyal Thief fans will feel about this sequel-slash-reboot. Will they be relatively satisfied, as many Deus Ex fans were with 2011's Human Revolution? Or will they feel grossly betrayed, the way so many Star Trek fans feel about the recent movies? At the very least, though, Thief has its own personality, and what I've seen of the game has been shaped by its predecessors so obviously that even an outsider like me can spot the connections.
Unlike in Dishonored, non-lethal play isn't a theoretical option here so much as the preferred approach, as protagonist Garrett actively eschews killing. In fact, the game's backstory revolves around a schism that grew between Garrett and his favored protégé when he grew revulsed by her enthusiasm for murder. Killing doesn't come easily for him anyway; his arrows can stun guards, but those weapons are slow to kill and expensive to buy. His blackjack can, with careful timing, parry an enemy's blows, but taking down a foe if you don't have the drop on them proves to be far more difficult than simply avoiding them altogether -- certainly I found better results by sticking to the shadows and remaining out of sight.
Thief also takes a rather naturalistic -- nearly realistic -- approach to stealth. Despite the series' occasional forays into mystical plot devices, Garrett by and large feels like a character rooted in the mundane. He's remarkably good at sneaking around and pinching people's possessions... but he does so by sticking to the dark and using gimmick arrows to create rope ladders or snuff torches. No teleportation or animal mind control involved. In a straight fight, he's practically worthless.
Without any magical powers or even a simple heads-up display tricks for players to rely on to keep tabs on environmental danger, Thief instead evens the odds with careful environmental design. In the prerelease demo I played -- which took place in a small, contained area immediately adjacent to the decrepit cathedral spire Garrett calls home -- traversal could take many forms. I could dart from shadow to shadow on the ground, sneaking behind guards as they made their rounds on patrol; or, alternately, I could scramble up ropes and ladders to prowl unseen via rooftop. Each had distinct advantages and disadvantages... and presumably obvious ones. Traveling via rooftop lets Garrett keep tabs on enemy movements and get a sense of the city layout with no personal risk, but the awnings and overhangs of the upper city offer far less room to maneuver than the ground level. And while the streets are packed with soldiers on patrol for suspicious characters like Garrett, they also offer countless dark nooks and recesses in which a canny criminal can hide.
Thief makes a conspicuous effort to even the odds by giving patrolmen "tells" to make tracking their movements easier. Commissioned soldiers travel in pairs, carrying torches that offer plenty of warning of their approach as the narrow alleys light up well before they draw near enough to Garrett to see him. Members of the citizen's brigade have different quirks; one watchman hums idly to himself, while another may be dying of consumption and coughs hoarsely as he makes his rounds. Even if you can't see the other people of interest as you sneak along the dim cobblestone streets, you should never be uncertain of where they are in relation to Garrett.
Perhaps the biggest concession Thief appears to make to its contemporary competition is in its mission structure. I say "appears" because the demo I played clearly was crafted specifically as a standalone work (including demo-specific bonus objectives and even a comprehensive listing of the finite collectables present to be pilfered). Still, I think it's safe to say that the final product will resemble an expanded version of the early demo, which featured a main story mission and several smaller optional objectives, all handed out as free-form bounties. All of these involved breaking and entering in order to snatch some sort of valuable, with differing degrees of complexity standing between Garrett and success. For example, one request involved sneaking into a sleeping woman's home, evading (or stunning) her alert father, finding a secret mechanism in a painting to reveal a safe, reading a diary to learn the location of the safe's combination, finding that combination, and finally opening the safe.
You'll definitely notice some "video game" conventions on display in Thief. Garrett the master criminal can jimmy any lock and crack most safes... except the ones that the developers have deemed unbreakable or uncrackable. Guards have various alert stages, and their awareness of Garrett as they walk past his hiding spots is denoted by little meters that slowly fill up. You know -- the usual mechanics. These work reasonably well in the game's context; the one frustration I encountered was the cumbersome tool selection system, in which selecting a new arrow type doesn't actually notch that bolt but instead determines which type of arrow you hold in your off-hand to switch into with the D-pad. Otherwise, Thief does very little to break the player's sense of immersion.
As one of the founding fathers of stealth action -- Thief: The Dark Project debuted mere weeks after Metal Gear Solid and Tenchu: Stealth Assassins -- the Thief series really shouldn't have to establish its bonafides. On the other hand, the last entry in the series was almost a decade ago, and much has changed in the ensuing years, including the core team tending to the franchise. This leaves the game in an odd place for its launch next spring: A forgotten relic and an untested newcomer all at once. Based on the hour I spent in Garrett's shoes, though, Thief definitely seems to stand apart from rivals like Dishonored and Assassin's Creed. Maybe that (along with the new game's widespread availability across multiple platforms) will prove sufficient to nudge Garrett toward the mainstream success his previous adventures never quite achieved.